Stop Making Sense

Stop Making Sense

Blythe Butler
Co-Director of College Counseling
Catlin Gabel School

“...and you may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’”  - Talking Heads 

We are all storytellers.  Some of us use literature to make sense of the world.  We put together stories or theories based on evidence and experimentation.  We tell ourselves stories to explain why people act the way they do, or how events in the past can inform our current world.  We use stories to make sense of the nonsensical.  

As my students compile their college applications, I encourage them to find their stories, pull the threads of their experiences together to identify their values, find colleges that match those values, and share themselves.  I help a student think about why their choice to learn to play the ukulele might have a connection with their interest in engineering, and which colleges might recognize what a ukulele-playing engineer will bring to their campuses.  I watch them identify the stories a college tells to help students understand its culture and learning environment.  I assist them in imagining how their qualities might fit into the class a college is building, mapping out its story for the future.  I try to help them make order out of a process that can seem disorderly.

 It does not surprise me, then, when the colleges release their decisions and my students and their supporters begin once again to seek the stories.  There are decisions that, in their minds, were foregone conclusions; the people who were expected to get in got in and the story has transpired as expected.  There are other decisions that prompt speculation; someone must have been desirable because that college is hoping to recruit more oboe players, or they need more women in science, or they are trying to increase the ethnic diversity of their campus, or they need more students who can pay tuition, or who will increase their socioeconomic diversity.  Rumors that someone’s parents pulled a string and someone else’s didn’t have a string to pull, or that an artist needed to reach a lower academic standard than a potential business major, become the story.  The disappointments are assuaged by the story that “They don’t like students from my [city, state, school, zip code].”

The storytelling that served us all so well at the beginning of the process turns on us.  The fact is that my students and I aren’t in the room where the decisions are made.  Though I often have a more educated and experienced take on the narrative (and may know more than I can share) my story is incomplete as well.  Even the decisions we might think we fully understand - an openly recruited athlete, for example, or a student whose siblings attend the college where they were admitted - may be part of a larger system of institutional priorities that are rarely public.  Colleges admit students for many reasons, almost never just a single reason.  The stories are, in the end, just stories.

And, in the end, this almost always becomes clear.  The stories are directly disputed by experience when a student spends time at college and realizes that the peers who surround them are complex people, admissions committees’ jobs are multifaceted and difficult, and admission deans don’t admit students who they believe will not be successful at their institutions.  However, while this sense-making and storytelling after the fact is often comforting in the moment of receiving a painful admission decision and probably fleeting in the long-term, the narratives can also become damaging to every child’s confidence.  If we dwell on them, or encourage our children to dwell on them, (“You did everything right and should have been admitted, your classmate just had an advantage”), we encourage these students to wonder about their own readiness to succeed at the schools where they were admitted.  If a friend has not earned their offer of admission, maybe I haven’t either?  Do I have what it takes to succeed at this college?  What are the stories that people are telling about where I got in, or didn’t?  Am I the hero in my story, or am I the victim, or the villain?

When we are feeling exposed, vulnerability researcher Brene Brown reminds us to ask, “What is the story I am telling myself?”  The answer to this question will expose the story.  This might be a difficult moment, because exposing the story will also remove some of the momentary comfort it provides.  It might remove a target of anger (“The deck is stacked against me!”) or a righteous sense of injustice (“I’m just as smart as they are, and they got in but I didn’t!”) or a way to adjust behavior (“Now that I understand how unfair this process is, I will advise my younger friends/children/siblings to go into it with more skepticism.”) or participate in a bit of social gossip (“I would never have seen him at a school like that but I guess that’s what they were looking for.  Good for him!”).  

But exposing the story can quickly move the conversation to a more authentic and satisfying place.  It will allow ample opportunities for meaningful conversations about the complicated feelings that surface when a family confronts the idea of launching one of its members into adulthood.  It will give students practice at identifying what it feels like to confront difficult situations, and how to manage circumstances where there are no easily identified heroes or villains.  It can open up a conversation about what the world of higher education is doing - or not doing - to mitigate the systemic inequities our country is struggling to address.  It will remind them that they don’t have to be defined by the stories they are telling themselves.

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